Impacts from the 1973 OPEC oil embargo could pale by comparison to an embargo or other disrupted access to the exotic, critical and strategic metals and minerals that are essential for energy, computer, defense and other technologies that are the foundation for virtually every facet of US economy and security. Right now, the United States imports up to 100% of those materials – and two dozen of them come 60% to 100% from China, Russia or mines controlled by those two countries.
Ironically, we likely have all of them right under our feet. But the United States is the only nation in the world that locks them up, makes them inaccessible under almost any conditions. My article lays out some of the steps that must be taken to address this untenable, unsustainable situation … and cites a new book that provides fascinating and disturbing details about it.
A looming technology-security minerals crisis?
New book analyzes near-total foreign dependency for critical minerals – and offers solutions
by Paul Driessen
In 1973 OPEC countries imposed an oil embargo to retaliate for US support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Drivers endured soaring gasoline prices, blocks-long lines, hours wasted waiting to refuel vehicles, and restrictions on which days they could buy fuel. America was vulnerable to those blackmail sanctions because we imported “too much” oil – though it was just 30% of our crude.
The fracking revolution (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing) and other factors changed that dramatically. The United States now produces more crude oil than at any time since 1970.
But now we face new, potentially far greater dangers – because we import up to 100% of dozens of metals and minerals essential for wind turbines, solar panels, and a vast array of defense, security, automotive, computer, communication, electrical grid, battery and countless other technologies. Two dozen of them come 60% to 100% from China, Russia or mines controlled by those two countries … and where child labor, worker safety, human rights and environmental standards are minimal to nonexistent.
Recent Defense and Interior Department reports have identified literally hundreds of ways US industries and military readiness are acutely vulnerable to supply interruptions for these rare earth and other exotic materials. Equally troubling, 90% of the world’s printed circuit boards are produced in Asia, more than half of them in China; that presents still more risks that competitors and enemies are establishing more ports of entry (on top of highly professional hacking) into industry and defense computer systems.
And now the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change absurdly claims American (and global) fossil fuel use must be slashed from over 80% of our energy today to zero by 2050 – and replaced by renewable energy. That would raise our dependency on these metals and minerals, and their costs, by orders of magnitude. It would severely impact every facet of our economy, security, defense and personal lives.
Just building the wind turbines, solar cells and high-tech transmission systems for billions of megawatt-hours of electricity would require incalculable quantities – and money. Batteries to back up all that electricity for windless and sunless hours, days or weeks would require vast additional quantities.
Thankfully, volcanic and magmatic activity, plate tectonics and other powerful geologic processes have blessed America with metallic and other mineral deposits unsurpassed almost anywhere else in the world. We likely have all these essential materials right under our feet. Incredibly, insanely, the United States is the only nation in the world that locks them up, makes them inaccessible under almost any conditions.
Federally controlled lands are especially problematical. Not only are they our most mineralized regions. We have no idea what is actually there. And we are not permitted to evaluate their mineral potential, in order to make informed, rational decisions about how they should be managed – to balance environmental protection and preservation against the raw material needs of a modern industrialized, technological nation.
A 1975 report found that 74% of federal lands were totally or effectively closed to exploration for and development of critical minerals, because of pro-wilderness, anti-mining, anti-energy laws, regulations, bureaucratic roadblocks, environmentalist lawsuits and court decisions.
An updated 1994 study (conducted after 78 million acres had been transferred to the State of Alaska and Alaskan Natives) concluded that 71% of federal lands were still off limits: 427 million acres; our best mineral lands; a land area equal to Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming combined! Since then, the situation has worsened steadily, especially during the Obama years. Even supposedly available lands are mostly inaccessible, because bureaucrats refuse to issue permits.
Perhaps worst of all, much of this steady lockdown resulted from a concerted, irresponsible effort to place lands in wilderness and other highly restrictive land-use categories – often with the deliberate purpose of preventing anyone from ever assessing or accessing their critical and strategic mineral potential. A recent US House of Representatives committee memorandum summarizes growing congressional concerns.
A groundbreaking book – titled Groundbreaking! America’s new quest for minerals independence – will soon provide persuasive reasons why we must reexamine the policies that brought us to this untenable and unsustainable point in American history. In concise, plain language, geologist Ned Mamula and Silicon Valley expert Ann Bridges explain why we must literally break ground in these areas … and drill down to find out what minerals are in them. Their key points must be pondered, absorbed and acted on by all who care about our security and prosperity.
- We won the oil and gas energy war, but a growing minerals and metals dependency imperils our future.
- America is undeniably endowed with mineral riches, but we have no idea what we have or where it is located, because we are not permitted even to look for, map and evaluate deposits. In fact, we cannot even mine major deposits when we know their precise location, composition and value. We need to know as much about subsurface values as we do about surface values, if we are to make informed decisions.
- American jobs, prosperity and security have always been based on “mineral wealth.” Some of our major cities and many of our major industries (including Silicon Valley) exist because of metals and minerals.
- We are at great risk now, because we are 50-100% reliant on foreign countries for the exotic minerals and metals needed to satisfy our addiction to computers, cell phones and other high-tech gadgetry, for virtually every civilian, industrial, medical, communication and defense application imaginable.
- China and Russia supply enormous quantities of our most critical and strategic materials – and could easily use them as leverage if the US challenges their hegemonic goals in Asia, Europe or the Pacific. The wealthy, powerful, increasingly radical environmental industry exacerbates these vulnerabilities.
- Chapters devoted to rare earth metals, uranium and copper-molybdenum-gold explain the politics, economics and corruption surrounding their stories, and how certain politicians and pressure groups actually want to de-industrialize America and reduce our living standards and global power.
- Excessive laws, land withdrawals run amok, costly and interminable environmental review and permitting processes, and other factors impose severe constraints on US viability and sustainability. Constantly changing technologies mean constantly changing materials needs and renewed exploration.
- Australia and Canada protect their precious environmental heritage while also utilizing their precious metals and minerals heritage. The United States must apply these lessons in devising better ways to handle land withdrawals, environmental reviews and permitting – with the White House, Congress, universities and the private sector leading the way on public discussions and positive initiatives.
- Alternatives to fossil fuel energy, high-tech equipment of every description, nearly everything we use in our daily lives is tied to the exotic, strategic and critical minerals we have so cavalierly made off limits.
- Except for national parks and certain other places, federal lands must be surveyed and explored by government agencies and private sector companies using aerial and ground-based induced polarization, magnetometer and radiometric technologies, grid soil analyses and equipment literally carried in backpacks. Good prospects must then be evaluated further using truck and helicopter drilling rigs, to collect core samples and other information needed for deciding an area’s highest and best uses.
- It’s time to launch a groundswell of support for more responsible policies, disrupt the status quo, and turbo-charge US mining, job creation, job and industry preservation, and long-term national security and defense readiness. Failure to do so violates the most fundamental principles of national security and responsible government.
The needs of current and future generations are at stake, because prolonged disruptions of our access to these minerals would lead to the collapse of Silicon Valley and many other industries, severely compromised defense capabilities, and the disruption or even destruction of almost every sector of our computer-dependent economy and society.
President Trump, his cabinet, members of Congress, military and industrial leaders, regulators, citizens and environmentalists need to read this book (coming in December). Above all, they need to recognize that modern mining technologies, techniques and regulations enable us to develop the minerals and metals we so critically need, while preserving the scenic, wildlife and environmental values we cherish.
Paul Driessen is policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and author of articles and books on natural resource issues. He has degrees in geology, ecology and environmental law.